adventure camping

Beginner’s guide to car camping

Often when people hear the word ‘camping’, a traditional pop-up tent comes to mind. However, camping enthusiasts will tell you there are many ways to spend a night in the wilderness. With the rise in popularity of RVs and trailers, the term ‘glamping’ has been born, which means ‘glam camping’. Among the rise of these alternative forms of camping comes car camping, which is exactly what it sounds like. Car camping is going on an excursion and sleeping in your car, although this term may sometimes mean driving up to a campsite rather than walking in. Keep reading for everything you need to know about car camping.

Where to Park

One of the biggest questions that arise when people first go car camping is “Where do we stay?” The answer to this question, of course, depends on where you are travelling, but it is ideal to look for campsites that are safe, undisturbed, and free of charge. Here are a few free options of places to stay while car camping:

  1. Parking lots

Not just any parking lot, scout for lots at a religious institution, small business, or Walmart. You’ll likely be glad to find that many businesses are welcoming to people staying in their lots overnight as it could potentially increase their business. When you arrive, go inside to speak to a manager and request permission. Be sure to appear well-groomed and ask politely. If they say no, accept their answer and move on. The following stores are typically welcoming to overnight parkers, so check your maps to see if any are nearby when you are looking to settle in for a night or two:

  • Sam’s Club
  • Walmart (Here’s a resource for Walmart locations where parking is not allowed)
  • Camping World
  • Bass Pro Shops
  • Cabela’s
  • Cracker Barrel
  1. Truck Stops

Despite the fact that truck stops do, in fact, serve primarily trucks, they are a welcome place for car campers to stop and get some shut-eye. When you arrive, look for an area designated for cars and RVs. If you are having trouble locating a truck stop on your route, search for the following chains:

  • Pilot Flying
  • Travel Centers of America
  1. Disperse Areas

Dispersed camping is setting up camp away from designated campgrounds. While this does provide ample privacy and quiet, it also means there are no services, trash removal, picnic tables, or fire pits. However, some dispersed camping areas will have toilets on-site. Be sure to look into all necessary permits required for dispersed camping to be sure you don’t run into any issues.

  1. Research online

Plan ahead and take advantage of the many user-based forums available to car campers. Other campers will give you insight on the best places to park along your route, and some reviews include photos. Before you park, be sure to cross check any recommendations to ensure the parking spots they recommend are open to car campers.

  1. Campgrounds

Designated campgrounds are one of the best places for car campers to park. Not only do they provide facilities such as toilets, showers, and convenience shops, they also have outdoor grilling areas, picnic tables, and fire pits. If possible, reserve your campsite in advance as they tend to fill up in the summer months, and be sure to keep cash on hand for any last-minute drop-in campsite visits.

bonfire camping

What to Bring

  1. Organizational bins

Even the most well-intentioned and tidy car campers will find their belongings becoming a bit chaotic after a few days spent on the road. Make sure you have enough space for everything you will need by packing your belongings in organizational bins that will easily fit in the back for your car or van and stack on top of each other. This will keep everything you pack nicely organized and ensure you have plenty of room.

  1. Tent

Even if you plan to sleep in your car the majority of your camping trip, it is always wise to bring a tent. When it comes to selecting the right tent, be sure to choose the proper size. Don’t worry about spending extra cash to get a tent that weighs less. Unless you intend to take it backpacking in the future, the feature won’t benefit you much.

  1. An air mattress

This is especially essential if you are camping in a van and will have room to sleep in the back. If not, it is still a valuable item to pack for those nights you will be tent camping rather than sleeping in the car. Getting a comfortable, full night’s rest will leave you in a better mood and with more energy to tackle your long days of driving.

  1. A camp stove

Purchasing every meal while on the road quickly adds up. Even meals from fast food restaurants cost far more than a home-cooked meal, so do yourself a favour and pack a camp stove, a few cans of propane, and a cooler. Even if fast food burgers for every meal sounds appealing before you leave, you’ll be singing a different tune after a long weekend of camping.

What to Drive

While you can technically car camp in any vehicle, there are a few types that are far more comfortable than others. In general, any car with a hatchback and rear folding seats will not only provide more space for your belongings, it’ll offer more room to sleep. Additionally, if you plan to camp in a dispersed area, you may need a vehicle with AWD or 4WD to reach your destination.  If you are looking for a vehicle that will be conducive to car camping, consider the following:

  1. Minivan

As it turns out, minivans aren’t just for soccer moms after all. Many minivans now have back seats that fold completely into the floor making it the perfect vehicle for two people to car camp in. In addition, the sliding side doors provide ample room to pack and access belongings.

  1. SUV

When it comes to tackling tough terrain, SUVs steal the show. However, there are some drawbacks when it comes to SUV car camping. SUVs tend to guzzle more gas than minivans so if you’re travelling a long distance budget for more money spent on gas. They also aren’t the most accommodating for two or more campers as the rear seats need to be manually removed instead of folding down into the vehicle.

  1. Truck

While it is possible to camp in a truck both with or without a topper, a topper is recommended for longer road trips with unknown weather conditions. A fair alternative to a topper is a truck canopy.


I am originally from Gilbert, Arizona. I have spent the last six years living in the Midwest. I love spending my weekends traveling and my Sundays watching the Green Bay Packers.

Latest posts by Haley (see all)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.